“When We Rise”: Must-Know LGBTQ History

In just 50 years, America has gone from a land where homosexuality was an illness treated by psychologists with lobotomies and electroshock treatment to one where gay marriage is the law of the land.

When We Rise is an attempt to explain how that happened, from 1972 to 2013. (Sonia Saraiya, Variety)

Jeff Jensen, ew.com, calls it “a beautifully queer thing in a very square package.” Starting tonight on ABC and also ending this week is a four-part, eight-hour mini-series, Dustin Lance Black‘s When We Rise, about the decades-long struggle for gay rights in the U.S.

Stars include Michael Kenneth Williams, Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker, Rosie O’Donnell, David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Matthew Del Negro, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rachel Griffiths.

Although many reviewers find it “too dense” (Dominic Patten, Deadline) and “overly ambitious” in scope (Robert Bianco, USA Today), most also say it’s well worth the watch, especially for those who are relatively unfamiliar with the subject matter.

Sonia Saraiya, Variety, sets up the main (and, of course, true) story:

…interweaving stories of three activists in San Francisco, who variously devoted their lives to (and were ravaged by) the cause. One is Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs in her youth, and Parker as an adult), a feminist activist who discovers her own sexuality in the process of agitating for the rights of her friends who are lesbians….Roma ends up making a fragile alliance with Cleve Jones (youth, Austin P. McKenzie; adult, Pearce), a gay teenager barely surviving on the streets of San Francisco. Jones would go on to become one of the gay rights’ movement’s biggest figures…

The third protagonist is Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Williams), a black Vietnam navy veteran who is both the most tragic figure in the story and the most alienated — from the movement and from the other ‘characters.’ His race cuts him off from the mainstream gay movement brewing in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco; his sexuality cuts him off from other veterans and the black community…

If for some of us watching this series is bound to feel nostalgically we’ve-been-powerful-in-our-united-struggle, it’s also likely to raise emotional triggers regarding current events in the Trumpism era. Although Trump had promoted LGBTQ rights in his campaign, he chose a Vice President and Cabinet appointees who’ve clearly shown anti-LGBTQ stances.

A few related and compelling concluding thoughts from critic Jeff Jensen, ew.com:

It’s a story that needs to be told and needs to be heard here at a time when the new conservative administration threatens to roll back the gains of too many years and too much suffering. (In a weirdly fitting and perhaps calculated scheduling choice, [the series] will be interrupted by President Donald Trump’s speech addressing Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 28)…

It’s a story of a marginalized people who deserve to be recognized, a history we all need to know and own, presented as potent mainstream television. At one point, a neglectful president flies above and over an exhibit of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in what plays as a willful spurning and taunt, and Pearce’s Cleve leads the crowd in a rebuke: ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ Some people, including yours truly, can barely begin to understand and feel everything encoded in that furious shout. When We Rise illuminates, moves us to empathy, and challenges us to join the battle.

Below you can watch the When We Rise trailer:

One thought on ““When We Rise”: Must-Know LGBTQ History

  1. My spouse and I will be DVR’ing and watching When We Rise. I’ve felt fortunate to have come out to myself, family, friends, coworkers, etc, at a time when being gay was pretty OK and I’ve felt accepted by everyone I’ve come out to. I do have concerns about how Trump being in office might change things for the worse.

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